Walter Keane

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Walter Keane
Walter Stanley Keane.jpg
Born Walter Stanley Keane
(1915-10-07)October 7, 1915
Lincoln, Nebraska, U.S.
Died December 27, 2000(2000-12-27) (aged 85)
Encinitas, California, U.S.
Nationality American
Known for Painting, illustration

Walter Stanley Keane (October 7, 1915 – December 27, 2000) was an American artist who became famous in the early 1960's for a series of widely-reproduced paintings depicting vulnerable waifs with enormous eyes.[1] In subsequent years, it was determined in legal proceedings that the artist Margaret Keane, who was married to Keane from 1955-65, was the actual designer and painter of the works that had become famous under the name of Walter Keane.


Walter Keane was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in October 7, 1915, one of 10 children from his father's second marriage. His father, Stanley Keane, was born in Ireland; his mother was from Denmark. Keane grew up near the center of Lincoln and made money by selling shoes. In the early 1930s he moved to Los Angeles, California where he attended Los Angeles City College.[2] He moved to Berkeley, California in the 1940s with his bride, Barbara (née Ingham), and went into real estate, both were real estate brokers.

Their first child, a son, died shortly after birth in the hospital. In 1947 they had a healthy baby girl, Susan Hale Keane. Walter and Barbara bought a huge home, over 5,000 sq ft (with a ballroom) designed by the architect Julia Morgan (who also designed Hearst Castle.) In 1948 the Keanes traveled to Europe, living in Heidelberg and later Paris. It was in Paris that Walter studied art, painting primarily nudes and Paris street scenes. His wife Barbara studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, and also studied dress design in various Couturier Houses in Paris. When they returned to their home in Berkeley, began an educational toy business called "Susie Keane's Puppeteens", teaching children to speak French through the use of handmade puppets, phonograph records, and a book. The "ballroom" of their large home became an assembly line of hand painted "wide eyed" wooden puppets, with various intricately made costumes. The puppets were sold in high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue.

Barbara Keane later became head of her own department in dress design at the University of California in Berkeley. Walter Keane subsequently closed his Berkeley, California real estate firm and the toy company to devote full-time to his painting. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1952. At a fairgrounds in 1953, Walter met an artist doing charcoal sketches, her name was Margaret (Doris Hawkins) Ulbrich. She was married to Frank Ulbrich and had one daughter, Jane Ulbrich. Margaret and Frank later divorced, and Margaret married Walter Keane in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1955.[3]

Walter Keane married his third wife, Joan Mervin of British Columbia, Canada, after his divorce with Margaret was final. They had two children in the early 1970s, while living in London, England. That marriage also ended in divorce.


Keane claimed his inspiration for the big-eyed children came when he was in Europe as an art student.[2] He is quoted as saying, "My psyche was scarred in my art student days in Europe, just after World War II, by an ineradicable memory of war-wracked innocents. In their eyes lurk all of mankind's questions and answers. If mankind would look deep into the soul of the very young, he wouldn't need a road map. I wanted other people to know about those eyes, too. I want my paintings to clobber you in the heart and make you yell, 'DO SOMETHING!"[1]

In 1957, after having been painting full-time for nine years, Keane decided it would be "a good idea" to display his work at the Outsider Art show being held in Washington Square in Manhattan.[4] In 1959 he and wife Margaret were referred to as "the family that paints together sells together". In a New York exhibition, patrons bought 20 pieces of Walter's, 20 of Margaret's, and six painted by their daughters Susan and Jane.[5] In 1961, The Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation bought Keane's painting Our Children and presented it to the United Nations Children's Fund. It is in the United Nations permanent collection of art.[6] In 1965 Keane was named "one of the most controversial and most successful painters at work today", with his works owned by many celebrities and hanging in many permanent collections.[7][8]


As early as 1957 it was reported that Margaret superimposed some of her work onto her husband's paintings, with Walter quoted as saying, "When I paint people, she usually complains that the eyes aren't big enough and proceeds to make them bigger,"[4] but photos released in 1961 showed both Walter and Margaret at the same time painting portraits of actress Natalie Wood, with Margaret representing her as a "pensive, sophisticated woman" and Walter portraying her as a "wistful, wide-eyed waif", as well as additional photos showing the two Keanes at work in their studio, both painting 'big-eyed' portraits, with the figures in Walter's work having their eyes more exaggerated than those of Margaret's.[9] Conflict over that issue was cited as one of the reasons they divorced. The couple separated in November 1964 and a divorce was granted in May 1965.[10] After their separation, and in speaking about how the two met, Margaret stated "It was the eyes that did it. I liked the way he painted eyes and he liked mine." "...I admire his genius tremendously."[1] By 1970, Margaret was remarried, having wed Honolulu sportswriter Dan McGuire.

The dispute between Margaret and Walter began after release of a news article in which Walter compared himself to Rembrandt and El Greco.[11] In a response at odds with released photographs of the two at work and her own earlier published remarks, Margaret stated that it was actually she who did all the 'eyes' paintings and then issued a public challenge to Walter for a "paint off" to be held in San Francisco's Union Square.[12] Walter chose to ignore Margaret's challenge, being initially "flabbergasted and at a loss for words", and then later "amused by the claims". Margaret appeared and produced a painting, but Walter did not attend.[2]

In 1984, Margaret continued asserting that her ex-husband "couldn't learn to paint at all",[13] and challenged Walter to another paint-off. In an announcement of the new challenge, she was quoted as saying, "Let him paint or shut up".[14] Walter had suggested to USA Today that Margaret was claiming credit for the pictures only because she thought he was dead. In response, she slapped him with a slander suit. During the 1986 lawsuit, a federal judge in Honolulu, Hawaii ordered both Walter and Margaret Keane to paint pictures for the jury. Margaret produced a painting in 53 minutes, while Walter pleaded that he was taking medication for a painfully injured shoulder and declined to paint. Margaret also brought in drawings with similarly over-sized eyes she completed at eleven years of age.[15] Losing the lawsuit,[2] he was ordered to pay her $4 million for emotional distress and damaged reputation.[15][16]

Even having lost the suit, Keane continued to insist that he was the creator of the big-eyed children. Walter Keane, who habitually referred to himself in the third person, took special pride in the eyes, which were part of the reason for his commercial success.[2] Their dispute continued for decades, with both Walter and Margaret claiming to be creators of the large eye motif.[11][17] In 1991, he was quoted as saying, "I painted the waifs of the world."[17] Rumors of Keane having died in 1993 were dispelled when he showed up in early December at a location in Brentwood to autograph copies of his autobiography, The World of Keane.[18]

Keane was 85 when he died 7 years later, on December 27, 2000, in Encinitas, California.[17]

Cultural references[edit]

A Keane painting makes a brief appearance in the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper. Upon seeing it, Diane Keaton punningly says, "It's keen. No, no, it's greater than keen—it's Cugat!"[citation needed]


Tim Burton is directing and producing the upcoming film based on Keane's life, titled Big Eyes. It is set to release to theaters in December 2014 with Christoph Waltz playing Keane and Amy Adams playing his wife, Margaret.[19][20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Howard, Jane (August 27, 1965). "The Man Who Paints Those Big Eyes: The Phenomenal Success of Walter Keane". Life Magazine. pp. Vol. 59, No. 9 – pp. 39, 45, 48. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Eyes Have a Nay". St. Petersburg Times. October 21, 1970. Retrieved December 9, 2010. 
  3. ^ "Margaret Keane Gets Divorce". Free Lance-Star. March 19, 1965. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  4. ^ a b Wilcock, John (June 19, 1957). "Walter Keane, Artist: Crosses the Continent for the Show in the Square". Village Voice. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  5. ^ Pauley, Gay (December 27, 1959). "The Family That Paints Together Sells Together". Modesto Bee. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  6. ^ Margaret Keane, Walter Stanley Keane, Richard Nolan (1962). Margaret and Walter Keane. Tomorrow's masters series. Prescolite. p. 12. 
  7. ^ Bishop, Katherine (March 4, 1992). "Paintings Of Small Kids With Big Eyes Are Back". Spokesman-Review (Google News Archive). Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  8. ^ Paradise of the Pacific, Volumes 77-78. 1965. 
  9. ^ "Double Image". Youngstown Vindicator (Google News Archive). December 10, 1961. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  10. ^ "Artist Awarded Legal Separation". Reading Eagle (Google News Archive). May 17, 1965. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  11. ^ a b "The lady behind those Keane-eyed kids". Life Magazine. November 20, 1970. pp. Vol. 69, No. 21 – pp. 56. Retrieved December 9, 2010. 
  12. ^ UPI (October 17, 1970). "Controversial 'eyes'". Montreal Gazette (Google News Archive). p. 44. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  13. ^ "Playboy Prince Says He's a Loner". Modesto Bee (Google News Archive). July 11, 1984. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  14. ^ "Artist Challenges Ex-husband To Solve 'big Eye' Controversy". Lakeland Ledger (Google News Archive). July 11, 1984. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  15. ^ a b Kunen, James S. (June 23, 1986). "Margaret Keane's Artful Case Proves That She—and Not Her Ex-Husband—made Waifs". People (magazine). pp. Vol. 25 No. 25. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  16. ^ "Artist Wins Suit". The Pittsburgh Press. June 5, 1986. Retrieved December 9, 2010. 
  17. ^ a b c Levy, Dan (January 4, 2001). "Keane, Artist Associated With Big-Eyed Portraits". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 11, 2010. 
  18. ^ "Keane Perceptions". December 12, 1993. pp. View, Part E, page 6. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  19. ^ Fleming, Mike, Jr. (April 2, 2013). "Tim Burton To Direct ‘Big Eyes’; The Weinstein Company Putting Finishing Brush Strokes On Deal For Painting Saga". Retrieved April 3, 2013. 
  20. ^ Chitwood, Adam (April 2, 2013). "Tim Burton to Next Direct Biopic BIG EYES; Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams Will Star". Collider. Retrieved April 3, 2013.